by Jonathan Arena
The Black Forest darkened with each stride.
Bruxton and Drunn reckoned it was midday, but sunlight dared not pierce the thick canopy of gnarled trees and branches. Drunn remained close to the light of Bruxton’s torch as his companion hacked at the thorn-covered vines.
The darkness outside the circle of torchlight was as scary as it was unknown. Drunn kept his head on a swivel. Every sound, crunch or rustle snatched his attention and held it. But only until the next.
The insects were loudest. Humming, buzzing, squirming, fluttering, slithering. All of it created a constant and uneasy tone surrounding them. The torch kept the critters at bay but would do little against a large predator.
The two men had no idea what they were seeking.
Broken fences, slain livestock and missing property offered only clues and nothing more. The most telling indication was always the great big tracks left behind in the mud, dirt, everywhere. The tracks had to belong to a massive beast. And it had to be living in the Black Forest.
The beast’s presence had only been felt in the last year. Where did it come from? Perhaps it widened its hunting territory. Perhaps it lost its previous one to an even larger predator.
The questions remained unanswered because no one had seen or heard the beast despite its great size. No one except Hargerrard. He was the first human victim.
“May we stop a moment?” Drunn asked.
“No.” Bruxton waved his torch at a giant winged insect as it frantically tried to escape the light. Slimy wings brushed against Drunn’s nose in his attempt to dodge it. The ugly creature disappeared into the black of the forest.
“I would like to scribble some notes.” Drunn wiped his face thoroughly.
“Tales are more powerful when you feel what the characters feel. I want to capture those feelings, Bruxton. My feelings. Your feelings. The darkness. The sounds. I want to capture it all.”
“I am certain you will feel the same when we stop. I am also certain the darkness and the sounds will follow us wherever we go.”
So they trekked on.
The ominous sounds of the forest grew in both volume and number the deeper they traveled. Staring eyes seemed to watch their every move as the pair passed through. The torch burned low, and the brush thickened. Drunn’s worry multiplied.
Thorns and spines decorated every plant and shrub. The sharp needles scraped and cut the pants and skin of both men as they trudged through, despite Bruxton’s axe work. Blood sprinkled the greenery and appeared to attract creatures once the torchlight moved on.
Bruxton stopped and looked at his torch. It had burned so low it nearly scorched his hand. He held it to all sides of him and then above for a complete study of his surroundings. He tossed the torch into the center of a clearing and glanced back to Drunn.
“Now we stop.”
Drunn dropped his satchel to the ground beside a tree. The weight off his shoulders was nice but not enough. He had to get off his feet too. They were killing him more than anything. He loosened his boots with relief.
He watched Bruxton in admiration. His companion cut down branches for firewood and added some to the torch, now a campfire.
Drunn moved his attention to his pack. He unbuckled the compartment and removed a leather-bound book, a bottle of ink and a quill.
“We will need to keep the fire going all night,” Bruxton said.
“Is it night?” Drunn opened the book.
“It is night for us.” Bruxton chopped down branches closer to Drunn, but he tried remaining focused on his book. He stopped at the first blank page and readied his quill.
“Do you think we will find it?”
“I think it will find us before we find it. This is its home.”
“Comforting,” Drunn said.
“If you wanted comfort, you should have stayed home.”
“You insisted I come.”
“I insisted someone who could write come.” Bruxton cut down another branch even closer to a flinching Drunn. Wood chips flew, and some landed on him. Bruxton smiled. “You begged me to choose you.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, I heard you could read and write. Why do you need anyone at all?”
Bruxton said nothing.
“It’s because you know I am the best scribe in the village.” Drunn wrote more notes. “And you the best warrior. We are the best men for the tasks at hand.”
“I am not the best warrior.”
“Then tell me who is better?”
Drunn rested his quill on the page and studied him.
“You sell yourself short, Bruxton. For a small village, Goddard has produced many fine warriors over the ages. But none like you. And you, of all men, know that.” Drunn paused. The sounds of the forest dominated until he continued. “Is it the word warrior that displeases you? Would you prefer fighter?”
Bruxton gazed over to his companion. “Do you wish me to leave you here?”
“No.” Drunn picked up and dipped the quill. “But you would do well to remember my purpose. And also yours.”
“My purpose is to rid the world of the beast.”
“If that was your true purpose, you would not have invited me.” Drunn wrote more notes before continuing. “Rid the world of the beast, yes, but we both know that is not all you seek.”
There was a long pause.
“You seek redemption.”
Bruxton swung the axe so hard it cut clean through the branch and into the forest floor. He ripped it from the ground, and insects crawled from the hole and scurried away from the light of the campfire.
“You seek redemption through a heroic act so that your name will live on forever,” Drunn stated. “Or at least in a better light. And I seek to author a story that will allow my name to live on forever. We seek the same thing, Bruxton. And we need each other to do so. It’s quite poetic if you ask me.”
“I did not ask you.” Bruxton tossed the rest of the firewood into a great pile. “Finish capturing your feelings and get some rest. We leave here when I say.” He lay beside the fire with the axe in hand and closed his eyes.
“No dinner?” Drunn asked.
“You don’t even want to talk about the story?”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“It’s your story, Bruxton. The one to save your family name. Important, no?”
Bruxton rolled over and turned his back to Drunn.
“Well,” Drunn resumed, “It’s important to me and I cannot decide what perspective to write from. All the best tales are from the hero’s perspective. It’s the most effective for a story, right? You get to experience the story through the hero whom everyone adores. People want to know and feel what the hero knows and feels. But what if I wrote from the perspective of someone else? From the perspective of the hero’s companion? A man who is more afraid and warier than the brave hero and also just as likable. Not much is written in that manner. Could be more interesting, no? Something to think about.”
Bruxton pretended to snore. Drunn continued, “I’m writing the story from the companion’s point of view, I think. From my point of view, of course. The loveable companion.”
Drunn stayed up and filled more pages. He only stopped to throw more wood onto the fire when it sounded as if something big was moving near their camp. Was it the beast? Was the fire enough to keep whatever it was away?
He finally fell asleep.
“Wake up!” Bruxton knocked him in his ribs.
Drunn awoke in a painful flinch after little sleep. Bruxton held a new torch into the dying fire until it caught and then kicked dirt over the fire once the torch was ready.
Drunn rose to his feet, but slowly.
Bruxton stood with a new sense of urgency. A new sense of purpose. “Let’s go.”
“I changed my mind.” Drunn rubbed his temple.
“I changed my mind about the point of view. It’s traditionally written from the perspective of the hero because that’s who the audience cares about. There must be a reason for that, and I should not mess with it if I expect to be remembered. It might be an easy way to be forgotten.”
Bruxton shook his head and walked away with the torch. Drunn quickly gathered his satchel and tossed it around his shoulder.
“That’s an important development.” Drunn rushed up to Bruxton to stay in the safety of the flame. “That means I’m going to need more of your inner thoughts and feelings to capture the true essence of the story.”
Bruxton chuckled. “So now you want to capture my feelings?”
“Yes. To write the story you are depending on.”
And they trekked on.
They walked for what seemed like a full day, but Bruxton had given up on trying to keep track of time long ago. It was hopeless. Morning, midday, night. It was all the same. He was not even certain they stopped at night or started in the morning, but none of that mattered. There was only one time of day in this forest, and that was night. So they traveled through the night.
“You plan to die killing the beast, don’t you?” Drunn suddenly asked.
Bruxton walked on.
“That’s why I’m here, is it not? To record what happens because you will not be returning to the village to tell it yourself.”
Bruxton walked on.
“I will write whatever I damn well please if you do not talk to me.”
Bruxton stopped. He snapped his gaze back to Drunn and studied the small man. Drunn had called his card. His presence was critical for that exact reason. He had chosen Drunn because he was skilled and young and ambitious.
“Yes,” Bruxton finally said. “What I have done will never be forgiven while I am still breathing. The only chance for my sons and daughters, and their sons and daughters, will be if I sacrifice my life for the good of the people. For the good of everyone. Only in my death will my family be able to live.”
Drunn looked stunned and for once had nothing to say. Bruxton rather liked it. Maybe if he answered more of his questions, he would shut up. That would be nice.
“I hope you will not include such information in your tale,” Bruxton said. “Such things would only tarnish my actions and sink my name deeper into the dirt. For my family, tell the story that truly matters. You will receive what you wish all the same. Do I have your word that this remains between us?”
The response was slow. The sounds of the Black Forest dominated the moment. Some fluttering, some slithering. A loud buzzing passed nearby. Drunn responded just before his companion’s patience ran out.
“Yes, yes. You have my word.”
So they trekked on.
Bruxton hacked away at the gnarled growth while Drunn nibbled on a piece of dry bread. He finished the last of his canteen, savoring the last few drops on his tongue.
“I am out of water,” Drunn confessed.
“You should have brought more.”
“Do you think we will come upon some?”
“A river? A stream?” Drunn continued. “I mean, it must rain in here a great deal for all this growth. But it makes you wonder… how does it all grow without sunlight? Does this place ever get sunlight?”
Bruxton stopped, and Drunn bumped into him because he was following too close. He lowered the torch and moved it along the ground.
“What is it?” Drunn gazed over Bruxton’s shoulder. “Are those tracks?”
“Same ones from the village.” Bruxton stared in the direction the tracks headed. He stared as if he could see something, but there was only darkness. He looked back to the tracks for further study. They were huge. Larger than he remembered from the village but no doubt the same. The base of the print was circular, with four protruding claws that dug deep into the dirt as the beast pushed off. Broken twigs and branches from the thorned brush confirmed the direction the beast took. Drunn looked scared.
“Come on.” Bruxton followed the tracks. “You can capture your feelings later.”
So they trekked on.
The sounds of the forest persisted as the two tracked the beast. A more defined trail appeared over time. It was used by more than just the beast. Tracks of all kinds were imprinted along the way.
The beast had the largest prints, but it was another that captured their attention. It was most peculiar. Bruxton shined the torch across the ground.
The print of a man’s boot.
He looked back to Drunn with a curious glance.
“Is that what I think it is?” Drunn swallowed.
Bruxton moved along the trail with the torch.
“Are we backtracking?” Drunn asked. “Is the beast following us?”
“We are not backtracking,” Bruxton insisted.
“Where did the beast’s prints go?” Drunn asked.
“Good question.” Bruxton backtracked, careful to leave all the prints uncompromised. Drunn studied them too. They walked to the area where the beast’s tracks vanished.
“No sign of it leaving the trail.” Bruxton said. “They just… disappear.”
“And the boots begin,” Drunn added.
The two men looked to one another with astonishment, confusion and everything in between. They gazed back down at the tracks, hoping to make sense of it all, but their efforts were unrewarded. Drunn grabbed his satchel and unbuckled the main compartment.
“It’s clear what we do,” Bruxton said. “We follow the human tracks.”
“Can I have a few moments?”
“We keep moving.” Bruxton did not want to answer questions anymore. He had too much on his mind. Could it be true? Humans?
So they trekked on.
The boot prints led them down the trail to a small encampment. Bruxton stopped and signaled Drunn to do the same. He crouched and lowered the light behind some brush. No one seemed to notice their arrival despite the glowing of the torch. No one even seemed to be home either unless they were in the three tents. A well-used fire pit with plenty of firewood sat at the center, and a pile of tools stacked in no particular order stood to one side.
Bruxton poured the remainder of his water onto the torch.
“Oh, come on!” Drunn complained.
Bruxton snuffed the torch into the ground until it was out. Darkness enveloped the area, and the encampment disappeared in the black. The sounds of the forest became even more haunting without the torch.
“What are you doing?” Drunn whispered.
“They will see the light.”
“Whoever calls this home.”
“But now we cannot even see ourselves!”
“Your eyes will adjust. Patience.”
“Patience? What if no one lives here anymore? Who in their right mind would do so to begin with?”
“People still live here. You saw the tracks. They are not old. Look at the fire pit. Please tell me you are not so naive.”
Bruxton and Drunn remained silent while they waited. They waited for their eyes to adjust and for people to return. The latter would take much longer.
“What exactly is our plan?” Drunn swatted a juicy insect. “You know, when… if anyone shows up?”
“We get answers.”
“Answers to what?” Drunn frantically cleared his boots of something trying to crawl inside. “Why anyone would live out here? I would love to hear the answer to that.”
Bruxton shot him a glance.
“There are several tents,” Drunn continued. “What if there’s a whole group of them? What are we going to do? Your destiny might involve death but mine does not. I understand death ensures a notable life for you. But life ensures a notable death for me.”
A pause. Slithering, humming, wriggling.
“And on the subject,” Drunn said. “I was thinking. Perhaps choosing a point of view is obsolete. Perhaps the most effective story is to understand all points of view. To see through the eyes of every character. To be an omnipotent narrator and offer the insights and feelings of all characters all the time. To tell a tale from the eyes of God. What do you think, Bruxton?”
“You will be God?”
“Yes, I suppose.”
“I think you should stay here when the men come back.”
“Do you think the story will be too muddied with all that going on? Too complicated to follow?” Drunn’s mind raced around and around. He had the perfect story but had no idea how to tell it. His options were endless. They always were for any tale. So many aspects, so many elements, so many ways to align each piece, but only one was best.
“It will be easier for me to take them on by myself.” Bruxton ignored him. “Men are easier to kill than an unknown beast. They are predictable and full of fear.” Second thoughts crept into Bruxton’s head. Second thoughts about bringing anyone, especially a writer. Never invite a writer into your home, his trainer once warned. Maybe he should have done this alone. He would never have returned, his death would be assumed, but the beast would stop coming to the village. His success would be assumed as well. But he did not want them to assume.
He needed them to know.
“Wait, what? Kill?” Drunn shivered at the idea.
“These men are the beast.”
“Then we should bring them back to face the court for their wrongdoing,” Drunn insisted. “Not kill them.”
Bruxton laughed. “Life is not like it is in your books, Drunn. In life, justice is best served by the sharp end of a sword, or axe. No one’s time is wasted and no guilty man goes free. But you should write of a beast. You should write of a great beast and a great battle with it.”
“No one will want to know the beast was man. It would only add to the mistrust among folk in town and perhaps even spark similar ideas for others. No good would come from it. And it would make for a better tale, no?”
“Hide the lie between two truths…” Drunn said as if quoting an old mentor. “Maybe it should be written from your point of view.”
Bruxton held up one hand to silence any further words. A small glow from down the path approached at a steady pace. He watched and carefully lowered his hands to the grips of his sheathed sword and axe. The glow divided into three torches carried by three men.
The men had chunks of raw meat and a few tools. They were terribly unshaven and unkempt. One of them wore giant boots. The other two had similar boots slung over their shoulders, but walked in normal ones. They appeared tired and dragged themselves into camp.
They tossed their torches into the fire pit, where some brush and a few uncharred logs caught ablaze.
The man untied his strange boots as soon as he sat down beside the fire. He removed them from his feet with a sigh. “These things seem to get heavier and heavier every time,” the man said, tossing them near a tent.
“That’s why we always bring another pair of boots,” another said as he hung raw meat over a rope above the fire pit. The tools were added to the pile of others. “Why all of a sudden you insist on wearing them all the way back to camp is beyond me.”
“Because of my dream.”
“Oh, here we go again. You’ve been paranoid ever since that damn dream.”
“No one is venturing in here, sonny. You know that.”
“How long are we going to keep doing this?”
“Until we have enough tools to sell. You know that as well.”
“What’s the rush anyway? I’ve grown a taste for this life.”
“It’s not the worst I’ve done.”
“Need to get laid though.”
“Ay. Next time, we grab a broad and take turns.”
The three men laughed.
“She wouldn’t dare flee into the forest alone. She’ll be a prisoner without bars.”
They laughed harder.
“I say we go back for her tomorrow. Pick the ripest one of the lot.”
“We have never gone two days in a row.”
“How do you even keep track of days in here?”
“I have told you how many times? If you do not understand by now, you never will.”
Drunn tapped Bruxton on the shoulder and startled him. The retired warrior had been watching with both curiosity and disgust. He spat on the ground.
“What’s the plan?” Drunn whispered.
Bruxton turned and signaled for him to stay like a dog. He rose to his feet and drew his sword. He held the axe in the other hand.
He must have made a sound, because all three men snapped their necks to look in his direction. They stared right at him. But saw nothing but black.
“Like I’m the only one paranoid?” The man roared with laughter, and another joined him.
“Build up the fire,” one said sternly, but the others couldn’t hear through the laughter. “Build up the fire!” he yelled, and the others quickly did as they were told.
“So you did hear something?”
“Nothing the fire won’t keep away.”
Bruxton waited with a watchful eye. These men sickened him to the pit of his stomach. He gripped the sword and axe tighter. He thirsted for blood. He thirsted for blood like he had when he was a young warrior. He wanted three more heads for his collection.
“What if someone did follow us?”
“No one followed us!”
Bruxton stepped forward. The crunch of twigs and brush grabbed all three men’s attention again, but Bruxton cared little. He kept going. His pace hastened to a charge.
This was it. This was his death and rebirth.
All three drew swords and pointed them at the darkness. Bruxton entered the light of the fire and swung his sword at one of them. The man blocked it, but the axe came too quickly and sliced deep into his shoulder. Blood squirted high and far and decorated the tents on his way to the hard ground.
Bruxton looked at the other two men. He stretched his neck for a moment and then charged.
But a loud scream interrupted. Drunn yelled in the distance and scurried about. A nightmarish bug must have crawled on him.
Bruxton resumed his charge.
This time, he swung the axe first. He swung it so hard he knocked his opponent to the ground. Bruxton swung again with the axe but again it was blocked, and the man did well to regain his feet.
Bruxton looked around for the third man.
He was gone.
“It’s you,” the man in front of him said.
Bruxton focused back on his opponent. He attacked him with the sword, then the axe and then the sword again. Two blocked strikes, but the third ruptured the back of his knee. He went down and spilled copious amounts of blood. He swung recklessly and with little hope, and Bruxton evaded with ease.
He sliced the man’s sword-wielding hand clean off to add to the spray of blood on the tents. The man begged him as Bruxton placed the tip of his sword against the center of the man’s throat and pushed in.
The man choked on his own blood. Bruxton watched him die and enjoyed it. The world would be a better place. The beast was dead. Or nearly dead. One left.
Bruxton looked for signs of the third man, and he quickly found him. He was escorting Drunn into the light of the fire with a dagger across his throat.
“I’m so sorry, Bruxton,” Drunn admitted.
Bruxton dropped the axe and sword and displayed his empty hands. “I have nothing else. I promise this.”
“I don’t believe you!” the man yelled.
“Let him go and you will live,” Bruxton replied.
“I don’t believe anything you say! I know who you are!”
Bruxton closed his eyes. He had lived with the weight of his reputation for far too long. “That is no longer who I am.” He unbuttoned his shirt. “Let him go and you will live. I promise this.”
He slipped the sleeves from his arms and dropped the shirt onto the ground. Nothing but skin to see. And scars. Many scars.
“What are you doing?” the man yelled. “What the hell is this?”
“He’s telling the truth!” Drunn insisted with watery eyes. “Please! Please, do not kill me. No one else needs to die! Not you, not me, not him.”
“Shut up!” The man pressed the blade closer against his throat, and a small bead of blood dribbled down his neck and shirt.
Bruxton untied his boots and slipped them off.
“I ain’t falling for your tricks, murderer!”
Bruxton untied his drawstring and pulled down his trousers. There he stood, clad only in white underwear that reached his knees. His chest, arms, legs, his entire body was littered with cuts and scars of old, but no weapons.
“I hide nothing. I have no weapons and no tricks. I promise this.” He closed his eyes once more and took another deep breath. “Kill me instead.”
“Kill you instead?” The man laughed. “How about I kill both of you!”
He sliced Drunn’s throat and threw the dagger.
Bruxton moved his head and dodged the blade. His companion collapsed to the ground in slow motion. It seemed to take an eternity for him to land in the pool of his own flowing blood.
The man looked at Bruxton with surprise and fear. He turned and fled the light of the fire without hesitation and never looked back.
Bruxton grabbed his axe from the ground and closed his eyes. He listened carefully to the trampling and rustling of brush as the man blindly ran through the darkness. His eyes remained shut as he aimed the axe and threw it with complete focus.
The sound of an axe striking the spine of a screaming man told him everything he needed to know.
He opened his eyes and knelt down beside Drunn. He was already dead.
Bruxton stared at the fire and lost himself in it for what seemed like days, weeks. Only when the flame began to die did he come to. He added another two logs and then remembered Drunn’s book.
He walked into the darkness where they had waited for the men to return. He found Drunn’s satchel and dusted off the bugs. He brought it over to the fire and took out the book. He opened it and read.
He read each page and every word. Flashes of smiles appeared on his face but were dismissed as fast as they came. When he finished the written pages, tears rolled down his cheeks. He wiped his face clean and then ripped the pages out. He tossed them into the fire and watched them burn. He watched them burn like he had watched that man die.
Pieces of burning paper danced in the air above.
He reached back into the bag and removed the ink and quill. He was not much of a scribe. He only learned to read after the papers praised him as one of the best warriors in the land. And he only learned to write when those same papers trashed his reputation and family name.
“This time, my friend, we will hide the truth between two lies.” He dipped the quill into the ink three times and wrote on the page.
Drunn The Beast Slayer
From Into the Deep Woods: Stories & Poems